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Are City Schools Ready for Local Control Yet? Another Evaluation Underway

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PATERSON, NJ – Paterson Public Schools is undergoing yet another evaluation to determine whether the district is ready to shed state control after more than 20 years.

City education officials said they have gone through two “dry runs” in preparation for the state evaluation that began on Thursday and will end on Friday. They expressed confidence the district would perform better than it has in previous years.

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But one high-ranking city education official also said that Paterson students’ low scores in standardized tests, as well as low graduation rates, likely will leave the district unable to meet the state’s standards in the “instruction and program” category.

Last year, Paterson education officials thought they were on the verge of regaining some degree of local control when the district attained passing scores of 80 in three of the five evaluation categories – personnel, operations and governance. But state education commissioner Christopher Cerf then revised Paterson’s scores, leaving the district with passing numbers only in governance.

Cerf’s revision last year prompted the Board of Education to retain a lawyer to appeal the decision. But that case has seen little progress, a situation that local officials attribute to the court’s inclination to wait for a decision in a very similar appeal filed by the Newark Board of Education.

Paterson school board members assert that the city’s school children would be better off under local control because the state has been unable to resolve the district’s problems during the past two decades. Cerf himself acknowledged that the state education department has failed Paterson when he visited the city back in January, but he also asserted at that time that his administration would change things.

At Wednesday night’s Board of Education meeting at Kennedy High, state-appointed city schools superintendent Donnie Evans said representatives of the Passaic County Superintendent of Schools office would be conducting the evaluation. The county superintendent, Robert Gilmartin, then would submit his findings to Cerf’s office, which would produce the final scores.

The area in which Paterson Public Schools has performed the worst on the evaluation has been “instruction and program.’’

Board of Education member Errol Kerr asked on Wednesday what impact the district’s low student test scores would have on that aspect of the evaluation. Assistant Superintendent JoAnne Riviello said the district likely would lose 38 of the possible 100 points in that category because of the scores. Riviello also said she thought the district was in good position to get the other 62 points.

“But that still will not get us to 80,’’ said Kerr.

“But I think we’re much higher than where we were,’’ said Riviello.

“It just tells me that we have to double up and do some extremely hard work to improve in that area,’’ Kerr said.

New Jersey’s system for evaluating school districts and determining whether they ought to be under state control is called Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or QSAC. Paterson, Jersey City and Newark are the three districts in New Jersey that are under state control.

Under state control, the education department appoints the superintendent who has final say over all aspects of the school district’s operations. The Board of Education votes on contracts, personnel reports and budgets, but the superintendent has the power to override those votes. For the most part, the elected board members serve in an advisory role.

The state evaluation system has undergone some changes since Paterson’s last went through it, according to Theodore Best, the former school board member who now works as the district official assigned to QSAC.

Best, who is also a freeholder, told the school board on Wednesday that the state has streamlined the number of criteria under which districts are evaluated to eliminate redundancies that resulted in Paterson losing points under multiple sections for the same shortcoming.

In one section, Best said, the number of indicators has gone from 50 to five. But each of those indicators is worth far more points.

The state originally was going to have the county superintendent’s office conduct the evaluation in October, but that was delayed. Officials said the state was not sure whether to use the old or new ranking system in the evaluation, a decision complicated by the pending litigation over Cerf’s revision of the scores last year. As it turns out, the evaluation will use the new scoring system, Evans said.

The school district got word last week that the evaluation would take place, Evans said. School Board member Jonathan Hodges asked why the state did not get a minimum 30 days’ notice, which he said is the requirement under state law.

“We in part may be responsible for that because we asked for the evaluation to be done as quickly as possible,’’ Evans said.

Official said it likely will take months before Paterson Public Schools gets any official word on its performance.

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